The French geologist Joachim Barrande, building on Murchison's work, used the term Silurian in a more comprehensive sense than was justified by subsequent knowledge. He divided the Silurian rocks of Bohemia into eight stages. His interpretation was questioned in 1854 by Edward Forbes, and the later stages of Barrande, F, G and H, have since been shown to be Devonian. Despite these modifications in the original groupings of the strata, it is recognized that Barrande established Bohemia as a classic ground for the study of the oldest fossils.
The Ludlow, lasting from , comprises the age, lasting until , and the .
The Pridoli, lasting from , is the final and shortest epoch of the Silurian.
During the Silurian, Gondwana continued a slow southward drift to high southern latitudes, but there is evidence that the Silurian icecaps were less extensive than those of the late Ordovician glaciation.The southern continents remained united during this period.The melting of icecaps and glaciers contributed to a rise in sea level, recognizable from the fact that Silurian sediments overlie eroded Ordovician sediments, forming an unconformity. Other cratons and continent fragments drifted together near the equator, starting the formation of a second supercontinent known as Euramerica.
When the proto-Europe collided with North America, the collision folded coastal sediments that had been accumulating since the Cambrian off the east coast of North America and the west coast of Europe. This event is the Caledonian orogeny, a spate of mountain building that stretched from New York State through conjoined Europe and Greenland to Norway. At the end of the Silurian, sea levels dropped again, leaving telltale basins of evaporites in a basin extending from Michigan to West Virginia, and the new mountain ranges were rapidly eroded. The Teays River, flowing into the shallow mid-continental sea, eroded Ordovician strata, leaving traces in the Silurian strata of northern Ohio and Indiana.
The vast ocean of Panthalassa covered most of the northern hemisphere. Other minor oceans include two phases of the Tethys— the Proto-Tethys and Paleo-Tethys— the Rheic Ocean, a seaway of the Iapetus Ocean (now in between Avalonia and Laurentia), and the newly formed Ural Ocean.
Silurian high sea levels and warm shallow continental seas provided a hospitable environment for marine life of all kinds. Silurian beds are oil and gas producers in some areas. Extensive beds of Silurian hematite -- an iron ore -- in eastern North America were important to the early American colonial economy.
Coral reefs made their first appearance during this time, built by extinct tabulate and rugose corals. The first bony fish, the Osteichthyes appeared, represented by the Acanthodians covered with bony scales; fishes reached considerable diversity and developed movable jaws, adapted from the supports of the front two or three gill arches. A diverse fauna of Eurypterids (Sea Scorpions) -- some of them several meters in length -- prowled the shallow Silurian seas of North America; many of their fossils have been found in New York State. Leeches also made their appearance during the Silurian Period. Brachiopods, bryozoa, molluscs, and trilobites were abundant and diverse.
The Silurian was the first period to see macrofossils of extensive terrestrial biota, in the form of moss forests along lakes and streams.
The first fossil records of vascular plants, that is, land plants with tissues that carry food, appeared in the second half of the Silurian period. The earliest known representatives of this group are the Cooksonia (mostly from the northern hemisphere) and Baragwanathia (from Australia). A primitive Silurian land plant with xylem and phloem but no differentiation in root, stem or leaf, was much-branched Psilophyton, reproducing by spores and breathing through stomata on every surface, and probably photosynthesizing in every tissue exposed to light. Rhyniophyta and primitive lycopods were other land plants that first appear during this period.
Some evidence suggests the presence of predatory trigonotarbid arachnoids and myriapods in Late Silurian facies. Predatory invertebrates would indicate that simple food webs were in place that included non-predatory prey animals. Extrapolating back from Early Devonian biota, Andrew Jeram et al. in 1990 suggested a food web based on as yet undiscovered detritivores and grazers on microorganisms.